Featured ‘Day in the life of’: Riley, PhD Candidate studying community ecology

Hi, my name is Riley Lovejoy and I am a PhD candidate studying community ecology at the University of Alabama (USA). My work focuses on aquatic communities, using freshwater plankton as a study system. I am especially interested in the influence of invasive species (those that have been introduced to an area through human transport and have a strong, negative, impact in their new range) on native communities, and the role of native species dispersal in community response. In order to perform invasion experiments, we culture an invasive zooplankton, Daphnia lumholtzi, in our lab. As I am the only graduate student working with them, I am responsible for all tasks associated with culture maintenance. This means that, despite the quarantine, I am still occasionally in the lab for animal care.

Some people know what they want to study from the time they are a child, but I followed a somewhat circuitous path to my PhD study. After completing a BS in Chemistry at Judson College, I immediately started a PhD in population genetics at The University of Alabama. Though I had a good relationship with my advisor and I very much enjoyed population genetic theory, I realized that heavy computational work was not for me. After exploring my options, I decided to compete a MS in that lab then transfer to another for my PhD. Thankfully, my advisor was supportive of my decision and I find the work I do now to be much more fulfilling. I wanted to share this in case anyone may be unsure about their career – it’s okay to change your mind! I do advise getting as much diverse research experience as possible before starting a PhD, though, so that you know what you are most interested in prior to beginning your studies. Changing gears can be a difficult process!

Aside from working toward my PhD, I am passionate about science communication and serve as president of Delta Tree Initiative, an Alabama nonprofit organization I founded in 2014. Our mission is to help change middle and high school girls’ misconceptions about what it means to be a woman in STEM, and we do this by fostering casual discussion between students and professional female scientists, doing experiments, small research projects, etc. I am also an author for envirobites.org, an environmental science website working to make scientific research more accessible for the public by distilling recently published journal articles into easy to read blog posts, and I enjoy sharing my science and field experiences on Instagram ( @love.joy.science ).

8:33 AM: The quarantine has required me to adopt an adjusted work schedule, in which I work from home three days a week and in lab the other two. Today I will be on campus for a little while, preparing culture media for our zooplankton and phytoplankton. My dog Colby has gotten used to me being home more often, but he makes sure to give me extra goodbyes before I head to work.

9:52 AM: I had to drop something off at my lab mate’s place, and I felt compelled to climb this tree before leaving her apartment complex. Sometimes you just need to take a moment to stop and enjoy the world around you.

10:47 AM: I am preparing a large batch of culture media for our zooplankton and algae, and the first step is to thoroughly rinse the containers. I make new media roughly every two weeks, and it’s incredible how many chemicals are involved! Most would not guess that zooplankton can be so high maintenance.


11:22 AM: I am sitting in on a limnology class with my external committee member. Though I have been attending remotely via Zoom all semester, it has been interesting to watch the transition to an online format for the rest of the class.

12:22 PM: Tuesdays mean lots of Zoom meetings. I thought I would pause for a quick selfie while I waited for the others to join in. P.S., check out that amazing custom stained glass Ceriodaphnia from RosiesColoredGlasses on Etsy above my desk! It is an incredibly detailed work of art that was surprisingly affordable.

1:19 PM: This photo really belongs in one of those “what my friends think I do vs. what I actually do” montages. Sometimes being a scientist means exploring the world and working toward new insights into complex questions, but other times it means washing a whole lot of glassware.

1:55 PM: Time to start the autoclave! Autoclaves are basically super high temperature pressure cookers used to sterilize labware. To keep our plankton happy and healthy, it is important to scrub out and sterilize their containers often. I will be removing things and taking them back to the culture room once the run finishes, but the photo would look the same, so I will just leave it at this.

3:25 PM: Adding the final chemicals to the culture media. It takes a while to make this, but, thankfully there are always other tasks to do while the water is added automatically and chemicals are thawing.

3:43 PM: Done! It is easier to make the culture media in large batches so that it will last a while, but sometimes I divide the task. Today I prepped 60 L (3 containers worth) and the other 40 were made last week, but I have made up to 100 L at once.

5:08 PM: Today was a short day in the lab – the stipulations around on site work imposed by the quarantine have limited my time there – but I am happy to say it was productive, and that is what counts! We have special cleaning protocols in place due to COVID-19, so I will be wiping everything down before heading out.

5:30 PM: The main lab is locked, and I will be calling it a day soon, but I had to swing back by the culture room before leaving. These are Daphnia lumholtzi, the zooplankton we maintain. I will be replacing their media and restocking their food tomorrow, which calls for a longer, less exciting day, but I could not resist sharing a picture of some!

It has been such a fun opportunity to share my day in the lab with you guys! Please feel free to contact me on Instagram ( @love.joy.science ) if you have any questions about life as researcher, ecology, or science in general!


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